Weather is a tricky thing here in Utah. I’ve spent sunny January afternoons short-sleeved working in my backyard and frigid days in April watching baseball games during snow flurries. This winter has been really mild, with few snow showers and single temperature digit days. Today as I’m writing though, we’ve a high of 25, icy winds, and about 4″ of snow with more expected tomorrow. Feeling like we’ve gone back in time to the beginning of January isn’t what my garden loving soul needs right now. And as eager as I was to hang up my pruning shears in October for some well deserved rest, I’m twice as eager now to plunge my hands into some potting soil and admire budding leaves on my lilacs.
Until the weather decides to join me in my desire for spring I’ll have to settle for what little yard prep I can do indoors. I’ve made my four page long garden to-do list (check back soon for more on early garden must do’s) but I’m ready for some green.
We’ve decided to expand our vegetable garden this year, tearing out more turf in favor of the flavors of juicy tomatoes, and home grown acorn squash. Weather you’re looking to plant a large veggie patch, or just looking to grow a few container tomatoes on a back patio, starting your own seeds is a great idea. There’s something about beginning a garden on my windowsill that helps me make it through March. It can also help save money too. Buying a seed packet for $1.50 that yields 20 zucchini plants when you’d likely pay $1.50+ for just one feels good. Extra plants can be given as gifts to neighbors, or you can try selling them. I had a plant “garage sale” last spring and the sale of my extra veggies funded some new string lights for the patio.
When walking through the seed section of your local home improvement store you’ll likely see accessories like expensive grow lights, fancy seeding containers, and humidomes. Although having fancy seeding equipment won’t hurt your chances, they’re necessary.
You only need four simple ingredients for successful seed starting
- seed starting mix
- a container
Oh, and seeds of course. These components don’t need to be fancy or expensive, with a good batch of seed starting mix and a trip to the dollar store you’ll have everything you need to begin your garden indoors.
Seed Starting Mix:
Do seeds germinate in regular old backyard dirt? You betcha. But to up your chances of seeding success you’ll wan’t to use a special seed starting mix. This special mix provides the right balance of aeration with water holding capacity and sterility, which means you won’t have to battle any pests while growing juvenile plants. Depending on the amount of seeds you’re planning on growing, a small bag purchased from your home improvement store might be enough. If you’re planning on a starting a bunch you might want to consider purchasing the ingredients to make a big batch of your own. Supplies are easily found at most garden centers.
Seed Starting Mix Recipe
- 1 part vermiculite
- 1 part perlite
- 1 part peat moss
Seed starting sets will often include a clear plastic “lid” these are called humidomes. They basically create a mini greenhouse for your seedlings, helping increase heat and humidity. You can create this same effect with any clear covering. You can use take out containers, plastic wrap, basically any transparent covering will do. I found disposable casserole dishes at the Dollar Tree that came with transparent lids about 3″ tall. I’m also using some berry clam shells, and some to-go salad containers. Most “official” humidomes have a flap that can be opened to let out excess moisture and let the seedlings breathe a little. You can copy this by removing or opening the lids for a few hours a day or cutting a flap that can be opened and closed. I opted for cutting a flap that could be easily opened or closed without taking the whole lid off.
Make sure your container has drainage! It might be necessary to poke several holes in the bottom of your container. Tomato and berry clam shells usually have holes in the base of the container already, but if you’re using a tin container like mine, or a take out container you’ll want to make sure you make enough holes so that water can drain out. The developing roots of your seedling can easily rot if there’s too much moisture.
Starting with moist potting mix is crucial for seedling success. Because seeds are often small, they’re easily washed away or displaced by heavy streams of water. I like to mist my soil and seeds with a spray bottle, the fine mist ensures they won’t be damaged. Once my seedlings have started to grow and require more water I’ll set my container in a shallow dish filled with water and bottom water my plants. The water will soak up into the soil through the holes in the bottom of the container. I’ll check the soil and take the containers out of the water dish after about 10 minutes. That’s usually long enough for some good water absorption.
South or west facing windows are the optimal places for catching winter sun. Light is one of the requirements for adequate germination, so having your seedlings as close as you can to the window is crucial. Seedlings struggling with adequate light will become thin, spindly, and suffer from etoliation which basically means they’re trying to grow tall stems to reach as much light as possible. These tall stemmed plants are putting so much effort into vertical growth that root development and leaf production can suffer, making for weak plants. If 5+ hours of sunlight is impossible for you, you might want to consider subsidizing with a grow light.
During sunny days I’ll check the temps in my unheated greenhouse. It can be as much as 20 degrees warmer than outside if its a clear day. I’ll let my seedlings spend the day in there and bring them back inside before the sun and temperature starts to sink.
- Soak seeds prior to planting. Infusing seeds with a straight shot of H2O can speed up their germination. Don’t over do it, 4-8 hours is sufficient for most seeds. Those with a harder seed coat (think peas or beans) can benefit from a longer soaking session, but don’t exceed 16 or so hours or you’ll risk rot and damage.
- Adequately label plants! It’s easy to forget which plant is growing in which container. If you’re growing both Roma tomatoes as well as beefsteak unlabeled plants won’t distinguish themselves for months. To label my seedlings I picked up some toothpicks and white stickers while sourcing containers at the dollar store.
- Read instructions on seed packets! Some plants require the seeds to be covered to certain depths for germination, others can germinate sitting right on top of the soil.
- Seeds can be transplanted into larger containers once their second set of leaves appear. These are called their first “true leaves” and will often look different from the first round they sprouted. The seeds leaves that emerge out of the ground are called cotyledons. They existed in the embryonic seed. Once the “true leaves” start sprouting from your seedling you can gently “weed” it out of your seed starting mix and transplant into a larger container filled with regular old potting soil.
- Don’t be too hasty to fertilize after transplanting. Wait for plants to root into their new container and continue producing new leaves. Waiting a week or so after transplanting should be adequate.
There you have it, seed starting basics on the cheap. Here’s to an early start to the season, and a little green in the midst of the snow.
Overwintering plants in a zone 5 greenhouse is easier said than done. All in all we’ve had a mild winter for Utah. Much less snowfall than usual and even some warm-ish (45 degrees or more) days in December and January. Our first winter in the greenhouse was definitely a learning experience. On non-cloudy days our greenhouse temps were lovely, often 20+ degrees more than the outside temps. The problem becomes harnessing that heat and providing a slow, steady release during the night to ensure that our tender plants don’t freeze completely. We lost a quite a few succulents this winter, but I was pleasantly surprised to find this little succulent had made it through. Hopefully transplanting into some new soil, along with relocation to the sunniest spot will do it some good.
Next Year’s To Do List for Winter Greenhouse Success
- Cover greenhouse air vents with batting insulation
- Use silicone caulk to seal up loose panels and reduce cold air infiltration
- Increase the number of black water jugs for overnight thermal mass heating
- Look into paraffin wax heaters and solar power options for space heaters